Concern about the impact of technology on our minds and behavior has focused especially on young people. Acting on this concern, the Center for Humane Technology has partnered with Common Sense, the leading advocacy organization of kids in the digital age, to develop educational approaches directed toward children. The question is what form of education is potentially strong enough to counter the new forms of technology that capture our minds and attention?

This question is especially relevant in thinking about young people who literally have grown up with technology, unlike their parents who have at least known life without a smart phone, iPad or computer. Children seem to have their own phones almost as soon as they can talk, games on tech devices are the new baby sitters, and computers are part of school curriculum.

The use of a scare approach showing how tech can alter the brain is reminiscent of the approaches used to stop drug use or smoking. The problem is that while saying that becoming addicted to tech is like the impact of drugs, the story is more complicated than that. The factors that lead kids to try drugs or start to smoke are not the same as the use of technology that is part of their parents and their everyday live. The benefits and pleasures of technology are already deeply entrenched in the culture.

The challenge becomes how to help young people become aware of negatives they haven’t experienced while not denying the positives aspects available to them. This is a somewhat more complicated set of ideas to convey. The “just say no” type of campaign seems unrealistic in light of the pervasive — even by now necessary use of technology in so many spheres of life.

Some have suggested that the campaign to encourage safe driving may be a more applicable model for educating about abusive use of tech. The idea here would be to promote the safe use of technology. On the other hand, the current behavior of young people in response to gun violence should give us something to think about in a broader sense. Far from fitting the more familiar picture critical of today’s youth, young people have arisen with almost one voice to assert an unacceptable reality they see as the failing of their elders. They are not simply protesting the failure to be protected by the adults in charge, they are taking the lead in spelling out the kinds of changes that are necessary.

Showing a sophisticated understanding of the role financial support has played in preventing needed controls, these young people have projected the role they believe they can play in the future in bringing about change. In media interviews on the air and in print, they speak of themselves as being the largest cohort of future American spenders who will have power over family spending.

They also point out their potential power of the ballot, which for many high school seniors will begin this November. They promise to remember those elected officials who stood with them and those who did not. They also define their mission as protecting the nation’s children without reference to political party alignment.

These students have better articulated the need for common-sense gun control laws and school safety then their elders ever have. Perhaps the message to us should be, “ask the children” about the serious issues that impact their lives, in particular the threat of technology.

Instead of focusing on a need to educate them, young people themselves if confronted directly with the problem may help to educate us.
— Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: The Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: The Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.